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Science in a Time of Irrationality

If science is forced to continually retreat in the face of political pressure, our future is bleak.

Science needs a free environment where people are free to try things out, do research, and argue about what the results mean. This means that the government, the church, and educational institutions can't mess with the way science works. This has been true for most of the last few hundred years, but in his new book, Science in an Age of Unreason, Duke University psychology and neurobiology professor John Staddon worries that the United States is moving away from the liberalism that sped up so much scientific progress. Powerful forces that don't like how neutral and objective science is threaten to take us back to when it was more important to keep certain beliefs in place than to let research and discussion happen freely.

If you don't believe this retreat is happening, think about how the United States and many other countries responded to COVID. The government told doctors and medical researchers not to disagree with what they said about vaccines, masks, and treatments. For example, instead of talking with skeptics like the epidemiologists who wrote the "Great Barrington Declaration," Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and others tried to discredit them right away. That's not how science works; that's how a dictatorship works. Galileo would have known exactly how the authors of Great Barrington felt when the government ignored their work and made fun of them.

Staddon says that science is in bad shape in the United States because it has become too political. There are now many "off-limits" topics that can't be talked about because they might upset politically important groups. Science should be based on facts, not feelings, but in today's universities, feelings often win out.

He says:
Weak science lets slip the dogs of unreason: many social scientists have difficulty separating facts from faith, reality from the way they would like things to be. Critical research topics have become taboo, which, in turn, means that policy makers are making decisions based more on ideologically driven political pressure than on scientific fact.
Politics or die. How did science get so far off track? Both government and university efforts to "help" science have messed up incentives and brought in things that have nothing to do with science.

Staddon says that scientists did not have to hurry to get results that could be published in the past. Most of them worked on their own, and they often found that their ideas did not match up with the facts. No problem. They knew something wasn't true, so they could move on to other ideas. Today, though, scientists need to publish papers that get a lot of attention if they want to move up the academic ladder and get funding from the government for their next papers.

Staddon says, "But scientific discovery isn't the only thing at stake. Failing over and over again isn't good for your career, and for most scientists, science is now a job, not a hobby." So, researchers are forced to look for things to study and use methods they know will lead to results. But what's good for careers in research isn't always what leads to the most important research.

Also, a lot of research that gets published is done because the researchers want to get as much of their work out there as possible, regardless of how good it is. "Least Publishable Unit" (LPU) is a term used in scientific publishing, especially in the social sciences, to describe the smallest amount of data that can be turned into a paper. Researchers are pushed to write LPU papers, even though they don't add much to what we know.

The fact that a lot of students get advanced degrees in science is another effect of the government's wrong incentives. We train more scientists than there are jobs for, so many of them end up "just as poorly paid help" for research professors, writes Staddon. After spending many years and a lot of money on a doctorate, most people give up and find something else to do.

To make things even worse, the "diversity" craze has spread to science. Staddon gives the "Alliance for Identity-Inclusive Computing" as an example. This group says it needs to exist because there are too many "white and Asian, able-bodied, middle-class to upper-class cisgender men" in the field of computer science. This program treats that goal as if it were good on its own, without even trying to back it up with science.

In the next section, Staddon talks about some current controversies where science has been used to convince people that the government needs to do something. For example, we are told over and over that scientists agree that human activity is causing the climate to change in a dangerous way, and that drastic action is needed to stop this. The problem, he says, is that (1) consensus doesn't matter because scientific conclusions aren't based on numbers, and (2) there are still good reasons to disagree about the data on warming and how policy should change because of it. Many scientists have turned their backs on the spirit of science because it's easier for them to agree with politically popular ideas than to find the truth.

Progressive ideologues have been rough on the hard sciences, but the social sciences have been beaten to a bloody pulp. Many topics can't be studied anymore because they are "too sensitive," and scholars risk being criticized or even losing their jobs if they say something that offends some groups.

Take a case from Staddon's own university as an example. In 2011, two economists and one sociologist published a paper in which they found that students admitted to Duke based on their race were much more likely to switch from more difficult majors to less difficult ones. The conclusion was that students who get in based on their preferences have a harder time competing with those who get in based on their merits, so they choose easier majors to make up for it.

These findings were important, but they couldn't be talked about in a fair way because they upset groups of black students who spoke out loudly. In a statement, Duke's president called out the professors for "putting down the majors that African-American students choose." Still, the paper didn't say anything bad about anyone; it just told the facts. Science and education are supposed to be about facts, and reporting on them is what academic freedom is all about. But instead of standing up for science, Duke chose to make the students happy. Staddon writes that the students were,
treated like infants. They were pandered to, conciliated—not educated. And the cry for censoring this kind of research was tolerated rather than refuted. This is now the prevailing pattern in academe.
Activism and academia: Today's universities are full of academic fields that don't pretend to be objective, and faculty members are proud to say that they are working for social change. Activism is much more important to them than looking for the truth, and what they teach does more to brainwash students than to teach them something new.

We have "Whiteness Studies," which are based not on facts that can be checked but on shaky ideas like the existence of "white logic." Robin DiAngelo, an education professor at the University of Washington and the author of the book White Fragility, has spoken on a number of college campuses. Staddon says that her book is just more information about claims that don't have any proof.

We also hear a lot of professors say that racism is "institutionalized" in American society and universities. But when asked to back up their claims, they use cheap intellectual tricks and arguments that go in circles. If a professor says that racial differences might be caused by things other than racism, he or she is likely to be called a racist and accused, like the Duke three, of going against the "values" of the university.

Unreason is also to blame for the fact that scholars can now move up in their fields by making personal attacks on other scholars based on false information about their work. Staddon uses the example of Duke history professor Nancy MacLean, whose book Democracy in Chains got a lot of praise but was intellectually dishonest in how it portrayed Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan. (See "Buchanan the Evil Genius," published in the fall of 2017.) Scholarly accuracy is no longer necessary when "progressives" want to discredit someone, whether in history, science, medicine, or any other field.

Staddon is also worried that scientists seem willing to let their results be hidden if someone says they are afraid that some people can't handle the truth. In other words, science shouldn't say anything "because it's impossible to measure social bias perfectly." As science moves away from its long-held commitment to free inquiry, it will hurt its search for the truth in a big way.

In the end, Staddon says in a chapter that stands out that we are entering a new era of Lysenkoism. During the time of Stalin, Trofim Lysenko worked as an agronomist and biologist for the Soviet Union. Even though he wasn't very good at science, he was made director of the Institute of Genetics at the USSR's Academy of Sciences. This wasn't because of anything he did in science, but because he came from a poor family. (The Soviets had a version of affirmative action of their own.) His ideas about genetics and farming became the standard, and scientists who disagreed with them were punished. The problem was that Lysenko was dead wrong, and policies made by the government based on his ideas turned out to be terrible.

Staddon is afraid that we are entering our own time of Lysenkoism. People who tell stories that are "politically correct" get ahead, while people who disagree with them are ignored or shut down.

The "age of irrationality" is getting worse in more and more ways. At the end of the book, Staddon makes a brief mention of medicine, where, as we saw during the COVID craze, doctors' freedom of speech and action has been eroded by government demands that they follow "accepted" views. Under the way things are now, science will keep getting smaller, which will hurt everyone in the long run.

This book comes at a great time. If political pressure keeps pushing science back, our future is not looking good.

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